Women hold up half the sky
Female autonomy is increasingly under attack by the Party, which wants Chinese women to become baby-making machines. The Party fears a shrinking population will hamper economic growth, so now is encouraging childbirth. The fertility rate (the number of children a woman can expect to have during her lifetime) has sunk well below 2.1, the level required to keep the population stable in the long term. To slow divorce rates the CCP enforced a mandatory "cooling off" period before divorces can be finalized, and began limiting access to abortion, though details were scarce. While China has invested heavily in physical infrastructure development, there's been little public investment in social infrastructure such as childcare.
New China’s founding father, Mao Zedong, said in the 1950s: “Women hold up half the sky.” These words have inspired Chinese women to play a greater role in society in the decades since. Equality between men and women is a basic state policy in China. Significant improvement in the health status of Chinese women since 1949 is widely acknowledged as a major achievement for a developing country with the largest population in the world. The average life expectancy of Chinese women has risen to 79.4 years from 36.7 years when the People's Republic was founded. Women account for half of the people lifted out of poverty and over 40% of the employed population in China.
Despite the expansion of the pan-feminist community and the growing presence of women’s voices, little has improved when it comes to systematic gender discrimination and misogyny. Despite the #MeToo movement, there has been little progress on anti-sexual harassment protection mechanisms in universities and other public spaces, and those who have spoken out have yet to see justice. There is still a compulsory cooling off period before you can get a divorce, despite widespread opposition to the move. In 2020, China dropped three places to 106th in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Difference Report. And a persistently gender-skewed birth ratio indicates that China is still a patriarchal society. The continued presence of misogyny and social stigma, intensified authoritarian controls over every aspect of daily lives, as well as government censorship that silences the most active and outspoken. These things set hard limits on how creative and critical the feminist movement can be, and divide the women’s rights community.
The differentials in women's health by region and urban/rural areas are considerable. The Physical Quality of Life Index (PQLI) indicates that the overall level of physical well-being of Chinese women has increased in recent decades, but disparity in health between men and women still exists. The Gender-Related Development Index (GDI) further reveals that China has achieved significant progress in women's health, but far less has been achieved with respect to gender equality overall.
Traditional Chinese society was male-centered. Sons were preferred to daughters, and women were expected to be subordinate to fathers, husbands, and sons. A young woman had little voice in the decision on her marriage partner (neither did a young man). When married, it was she who left her natal family and community and went to live in a family and community of strangers where she was subordinate to her mother-in-law. Far fewer women were educated than men, and sketchy but consistent demographic evidence would seem to show that female infants and children had higher death rates and less chance of surviving to adulthood than males. In extreme cases, female infants were the victims of infanticide, and daughters were sold, as chattels, to brothels or to wealthy families. Bound feet, which were customary even for peasant women, symbolized the painful constraints of the female role.
Protests and concerted efforts to alter women's place in society began in China's coastal cities in the early years of the twentieth century. By the 1920s formal acceptance of female equality was common among urban intellectuals. Increasing numbers of girls attended schools, and young secondary school and college students approved of marriages based on free choice. Footbinding declined rapidly in the second decade of the century, the object of a nationwide campaign led by intellectuals who associated it with national backwardness.
Nevertheless, while party leaders condemned the oppression and subordination of women as one more aspect of the traditional society they were intent on changing, they did not accord feminist issues very high priority. In the villages, party members were interested in winning the loyalty and cooperation of poor and lower-middleclass male peasants, who could be expected to resist public criticism of their treatment of their wives and daughters. Many party members were poor and lower-middle-class peasants from the interior, and their attitudes toward women reflected their background. The party saw the liberation of women as depending, in a standard Marxist way, on their participation in the labor force outside the household.
Mao's control of the Chinese Communist movement increased with the epic Long March of his Red Army and its supporters, which began in October 1934. Forced to evacuate their camps and homes, Communist soldiers and government and party leaders and functionaries numbering about 100,000 (including only 35 women, the spouses of high leaders) set out on a circuitous retreat of some 12.500 kilometers.
The position of women in contemporary society has changed from the past, and public verbal assent to propositions about the equality of the sexes and of sons and daughters seems universal. Women attend schools and universities, serve in the People's Liberation Army, and join the party. Almost all urban women and the majority of rural women work outside the home. But women remain disadvantaged in many ways, economic and social, and there seems no prospect for substantive change.
The Marriage Law of 1950 guaranteed everyone the freedom to choose his or her marriage partner. Nevertheless, especially in the countryside, there are few opportunities to meet potential mates. Rural China offers little privacy for courtship, and in villages there is little public tolerance for flirting or even extended conversation between unmarried men and women. Introductions and go betweens continued to play a major role in the arrangement of marriages. In most cases each of the young people, and their parents, had an effective veto over any proposed match.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, major efforts were made to bring women into the paid labor force. This served the goals of increasing production and achieving sexual equality through equal participation in productive labor, a classic-Marxist remedy for sexual inequality. By the 1980s almost all young and middle-aged women in the cities worked outside the home. As in most parts of the world, one reason that so many Chinese urban women are in the work force is that one income is not enough to support a family.
The Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995 and its progeny the Beijing Platform of Action marked a watershed event in the history of local and global women’s movements. The clarion call to take Beijing back home resonated both locally and globally and reverberated in China among women’s rights scholars and practitioners. But Women and members of minority groups held few positions of significant influence in the government or CCP structure. Among the 2,987 appointed delegates to the 13th NPC in 2018, 742 (25 percent) were women. Following the 19th Party Congress in 2017, one member of the CCP Central Committee’s 25-member Politburo was a woman. There were no women in the Politburo Standing Committee.
The constitution states “women enjoy equal rights with men in all spheres of life.” The law provides for equality in ownership of property, inheritance rights, access to education, and equal pay for equal work. Nonetheless, women reported discrimination, unfair dismissal, demotion, and wage discrepancies were significant problems. On average women earned 35 percent less than men who did similar work. This wage gap was greater in rural areas. Women were underrepresented in leadership positions, despite their high rate of participation in the labor force.
Authorities often did not enforce laws protecting the rights of women. According to legal experts, it was difficult to litigate sex discrimination suits because of vague legal definitions. Some observers noted the agencies tasked with protecting women’s rights tended to focus on maternity-related benefits and wrongful termination due to pregnancy or maternity leave rather than on sex discrimination, violence against women, or sexual harassment.
Women’s rights advocates indicated that in rural areas women often forfeited land and property rights to their husbands in divorce proceedings. The May 28 civil code included a provision for a 30-day “cooling off” period in cases of uncontested divorce; some citizens expressed concern this could leave those seeking escape from domestic violence liable to further abuse. Rural contract law and laws protecting women’s rights stipulate women enjoy equal rights in cases of land management, but experts asserted this was rarely the case due to the complexity of the law and difficulties in its implementation.
Rape of women is illegal and carries a sentence that ranges from three years in prison to death. The law does not safeguard same-sex couples or victims of marital rape. A separate law on sexual assault includes male victims but has a lesser maximum penalty of five years in prison. Of the reported cases, most allegations of rape were closed through private settlement rather than prosecution. Some persons convicted of rape were executed.
Domestic violence remained a significant problem. Some scholars said victims were encouraged to attempt to resolve domestic violence through mediation. Societal sentiment that domestic violence was a personal, private matter contributed to underreporting and inaction by authorities when women faced violence at home. The law defines domestic violence as a civil, rather than a criminal, offense. The web publication Sixth Tone reported in 2019 that 25 percent of families had experienced domestic violence. In July the city of Yiwu, Zhejiang Province, launched an inquiry service where engaged couples can look up whether their prospective partner has a history of violence, “either between family members or during cohabitation;” however, as of the end of August 2020, there were no requests to use this database.
The government supported shelters for victims of domestic violence, and some courts provided protections to victims, including through court protective orders prohibiting a perpetrator of domestic violence from coming near a victim. Nonetheless, official assistance did not always reach victims, and public security forces often ignored domestic violence. Legal aid institutions working to provide counseling and defense to victims of domestic violence were often pressured to suspend public activities and cease all forms of policy advocacy, an area that was reserved only for government-sponsored organizations.
According to women’s rights activists, a recurring problem in the prosecution of domestic violence cases was a failure by authorities to collect evidence, including photographs, hospital records, police records, or children’s testimony. Witnesses seldom testified in court.
The law prohibits sexual harassment against women. In May 2020 the civil code expanded and clarified what conduct can be considered sexual harassment. The law expands the behaviors included in the definition of harassment, eliminates the statute of limitations of minors seeking to sue on sexual harassment grounds, and requires employers to make affirmative efforts to prevent and address sexual harassment in the workplace. It remained difficult for victims to file a sexual harassment complaint and for judges to reach a ruling on such cases. Many women remained unwilling to report incidents of sexual harassment, believing the justice system was ineffectual, according to official media. Several prominent media reports of sexual harassment went viral on social media, helping to raise awareness of the problem, particularly in the workplace.
The Chinese one child policy is unique in the history of the world. It was a source of great pain for one generation, but a generation later it began to yield important economic benefits. China's one-child policy was implemented in 1979 to curb the growth of the population, which now stands at 1.3 billion. The policy mandated only one child per couple in most cases. Under the system, which was introduced in 1979, couples in rural areas can have a second child if the first one is a girl. But city dwellers had to pay hefty fines for number two and could face forced abortions.
Rural families were difficult to convince. Peasants with limited savings and without pensions needed children to support them in old age. As married daughters moved into their husbands’ families, a son was essential—and preferably more than one. Years of political upheaval had left many peasants cynical about government policies and their likely duration; it also left them adept at avoiding unpopular prescriptions. Local authorities were forced to rely on fines for higher order births. They also turned to stringent birth control campaigns, which in the policy’s earlier years resulted in considerable numbers of women being bullied into abortions and sterilisation.
A national Law on Population and Birth Planning went into effect on September 1, 2002. The law provides that the state shall employ measures to place population growth under control, improve the quality of the population, and conduct birth planning. The law requires married couples to employ birth control measures. While provinces have some latitude in how they implement certain aspects of the law, it also requires counties to use specific measures to limit the total number of births in each county. The law granted married couples the right to have a single child and allows eligible couples to apply for permission to have a second child if they meet conditions stipulated in local and provincial regulations.
The one-child policy certainly contributed to the stark gender imbalance in China, which, according to the 2000 census, was about 117 males to 100 females. For second births, the national ratio was about 152 to 100. Moreover, China’s aging population and rising ratio of dependent to wage-earning adults pose tremendous challenges for the country. The lack of effective pension and social welfare systems for senior citizens results in a growing burden on China’s working age population. Many Chinese "one-child" couples, lacking siblings, are hard-pressed to support two sets of aging parents. The World Health Organization predicts that by 2050, 35% of China’s population will be over 60 years of age, leaving China as one of the worst effected countries in the world by population aging.
After 35 years of brutal enforcement of the one-child policy, the Chinese Communist Party announced on 29 October 2015 that a universal two-child policy will be adopted, allowing all married Chinese couples to have two children. The policy change was driven by serious demographic concerns currently facing China—a rapidly aging population, a shrinking labor force, and a dramatic gender imbalance that drives regional human trafficking problems and potentially higher levels of crime and societal instability.
In May 2021, China allowed its families to have up to three children, just five years after it had increased the limit to two. However, the changes are not likely be felt anytime soon because of the far-reaching impacts of China’s one-child policy, which lasted more than 35 years. Regulations requiring women who violate the family planning policy to terminate their pregnancies still exist and were enforced in some provinces, such as Hubei, Hunan, and Liaoning. Other provinces such as Guizhou and Yunnan maintained provisions that require “remedial measures,” an official euphemism for abortion, to deal with pregnancies that violate the policy.
According to an 08 June 2020 report on the governmental Xinjiang Web news site, approximately eight million “extra pregnancies” are aborted in the country every year, although the site did not indicate whether these abortions were voluntary or not. Citizens were subject to hefty fines for violating the law, while couples who had only one child received a certificate entitling them to collect a monthly incentive payment and other benefits that varied by province–from approximately six to 12 renminbi (one to two dollars) per month up to 3,000 renminbi ($450) for farmers and herders in poor areas. Couples in some provinces were required to seek approval and register before a child was conceived. The National Health Commission rejected calls to eliminate legal references to family planning, citing the country’s constitutional provision that “the state promotes family planning so that population growth may fit the plans for economic and social development.”
Starting in 2016, the PRC began relaxing birth control measures for the Han majority. Sterilization procedures plummeted nationwide as the Chinese government began encouraging more births among the Han. At the same time, however, birth control policies directed toward Uyghurs became more stringent. Ethnic and religious minority women were often subject to coercive population control measures. According to a Jamestown Foundation report and other sources that analyzed Chinese government statistics, natural population growth in Uyghur areas had fallen dramatically, with some areas reporting a greater than 80 percent drop in birth rates. Birth rate reduction targets were common in Xinjiang; one area reportedly set a birth rate target of near zero, intending to accomplish this through “family planning work.” Violations could be punished by detention in an internment camp. The government also funded sterilization campaigns targeting Uyghur women; these were reportedly enforced by quarterly “IUD checks” and bimonthly pregnancy tests. There were indications that Uyghur women who had been put in internment camps were injected with drugs that cause a temporary or permanent end to their menstrual cycles and fertility.
Under the law and in practice, there are financial and administrative penalties for births that exceed birth limits or otherwise violate regulations. The law as implemented requires each woman with an unauthorized pregnancy to abort or pay the social compensation fee, which can reach 10 times a person’s annual disposable income. The exact amount of the fee varied widely from province to province. Those with financial means often paid the fee so that their children born in violation of the birth restrictions would have access to a wide array of government-provided social services and rights. Some parents avoided the fee by hiding children born in violation of the law with friends or relatives. Minorities in some provinces were entitled to higher limits on their family size.
The law maintains “citizens have an obligation to practice birth planning in accordance with the law” and also states “couples of child-bearing age shall voluntarily choose birth planning contraceptive and birth control measures to prevent and reduce unwanted pregnancies.”
Although many local governments encouraged couples to have a second child, families with three or more children still must pay a “social compensation fee.” In previous years those who did not pay the fee were added to a “personal credit blacklist,” restricting their ability to request loans, take public transportation, purchase items, educate their children, and join tours. The compensation fees were estimated to be 15 to 30 percent of some local governments’ discretionary spending budgets.
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